Monday, 5 May 2008

Public service announcement, current and future students edition

I am all for students dropping by my office hours, scheduling appointments at other times, or asking questions via email or IM.

However, if you ever pull a stunt like showing up in my office to conduct a three-hour debate over my grading policy you can rest assured that the one thing you shouldn’t expect as a consequence is more lenient grading from that point forward. Moreover, I have a very strong suspicion that most college professors would take the same position.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.
[Permalink] 1. Steven Taylor wrote @ Tue, 6 May 2008, 7:21 am CDT:

Methinks that you are quite correct on that last point.

[Permalink] 2. werner von braun wrote @ Tue, 6 May 2008, 8:05 am CDT:

If student is a grad student and tried this crap, I’d pull their funding.
No doubt.

[Permalink] 3. Michelle wrote @ Tue, 6 May 2008, 9:12 am CDT:

Students like that are the reason I have on my syllabus clear re-grade policies that put the burden on the student to explain in writing why they think a particular question/answer was poorly designed and/or deserved more credit. Have yet to have a student take advantage of it. A one-week waiting period is also useful for giving students time to cool off (or forget). If they are motivated enough to write up something over a week later, I probably should discuss the issue with them.


I think it’s a legitimate tactic in subject areas where grading is very discretionary. Many professors don’t give ANY guidance as to what they’re expecting, so unless you badger them before and/or after the assignment you won’t have any idea what they’re looking for. One student being very persistent about this usually results in the professor more clearly defining his or her expectations to the whole class.

In my experience, many professors are incompetent teachers, probably because they were hired on their ability to publish and not their ability to teach. Fortunately, most professors are also not very assertive people, so I can usually push them into giving our class what we need when I try. (For example, we had a terrible Statistics professor whose lectures and homework assignments were all done using Excel—it felt more like an Excel class than a Statistics class—but the exams were going to be pencil-and-paper. We had no idea what to expect on the first exam. I asked him if he was going to give us a sample exam to help us study, and initially he said no, but after I bugged him about it in class every day for two weeks he relented and wrote up a sample exam. Students I wasn’t even acquainted with came up to me outside of class to thank me for being so pushy about it.) That’s why I was so amused by Timothy’s story, because it reminded me of my own experiences of having to pester professors into doing a better job teaching.

Michelle: I’ve had professors that have your same policy, and I’ve taken advantage of it, winning points back every time. I don’t contest every less-than-A grade (the B’s are usually the result of me half-assing an assignment and I know it, so I don’t bother) but if I legitimately think that either the exam/assignment or the grading was unfair or poorly done, I will argue my case.


Jacqueline: I think the basic idea (asking the professor how you can improve your grade in the future) is sound. But that shouldn’t be a three-hour conversation; that’s at least two-and-a-half hours over the line between “genuine inquiry” and “harassing the professor.” I agree with my good friend Nick Troester:

[A] student has about 15 minutes to make an affirmative case for more points. Pressing beyond that point (it’s happened once or twice) increases my resistance to rewarding that behavior with a higher score. At three hours, they’d get the same level of scrutiny in the future, but stop getting the benefit of the doubt.

I’ll be the first to admit that grading papers is something of a black art and every professor has his or her own pet peeves. I try to reasonably accommodate a wide range of “good college writing” but I’m probably more pedantic about some things (primarily bad usage) than most profs; on the other hand, I’ll readily make red marks on papers that don’t affect the grade in the slightest, since grading papers has both evaluative and pedagogical functions.

I adopted Michelle’s appeals policy last fall with minor tweaks and have yet to have a student appeal; a couple have asked about it but none ever followed through.

[Permalink] 6. Michelle wrote @ Thu, 8 May 2008, 10:53 am CDT:

I also explain grading criteria and grade exams/papers by student ID number (and I grade by question for short-answer/essays——go through all #1s first, then all #2s, so that if someone bombs #1 it doesn’t affect my reading of #2). These efforts at transparency and fairness also mitigate student appeals.


Is this appeals policy available online? I’m looking to nip this in the bud when I teach in the fall.


Nick: It’s pretty straightforward. I write something along the lines of “Students may dispute their grades if they believe that grades do not reflect their performance. All grade appeals will be made in writing. You will write a memo within one week of the date that the assignment was returned to you that explains why you believe that the grade you received is improper. I will respond within one week to this memo.” Of course, make it sound better than that, but the key points are (1) the dispute must be made in writing (2) it must be done in one week and (3) your response is on your terms. I have only had one student dispute a grade, and the memo made it clear that there was nothing substantive behind the complaint, the student was just mad that she hadn’t done better.

Another important strategy I have found is not to get into disputes about specific questions. If the student does not like his or her grade, s/he may have a regrade of the entire assignment. Stress that grades can go up or down.

Finally, the best way to avoid such complaints is to do a thorough job grading the first time. For things with right or wrong answers, it’s easy. For game theory or methods classes (if this is what you teach), stress from the beginning that you are looking for proper setups and derivations even if the answer turns out to be incorrect. For papers or other written work where subjectivity may matter, have a rubric that you fill in and attach to the returned assignment. It’s a lot easier for a student to understand a 69% if he sees 5/10 for grammar, 6/10 for organization…and so on.

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